Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we explore the history and benefits of an activity we all need and many enjoy, cooking.
Come in, my friends, and join me as we step through the misty portal for a look around the Kitchen of Time. From the salted salmon and insects of our distant past to food on a stick and Twecipes its all here, so grab a taste bud (or hide it if you are so inclined) and let’s take a virtual taste test of the history of cooking.
History of Cooking
While scholars continue to debate the origins of cooking, it seems clear that one of our predecessors, Homo Erectus, was the first to cook. This belief is based on evidence included in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a pair of Harvard researchers, Zarin Machanda and Chris Organ.
Their study found that cooking has roots going back 1.9 million years. You see, our species, by weight, should be spending at least 48% of its time eating, chewing and digesting food (the after Thanksgiving nap-type of digestion where not much gets done). However, around 1.9 million years ago, Homo Erectus began spending just a tenth of that, or 4.7% of their time eating. A vast improvement over what all previous ancestors had been doing. This sudden freeing of time allowed Homo Erectus to hunt for higher quality foods, socially interact (origins of “hearth and home”) and begin to create tools that simplified life even more. Cooking is one of the ancient foundational keystones of modern society.
The advent of cooking provided our ancestors with a higher number of calories for their effort and produced some evolutionary changes in the species such as a smaller gut, larger brain and extended energy allowing for all the activities Homo Sapiens (modern humans) are able to do today.
Join me over at the serving table and we’ll take a brief look at some of the things our ancestors enjoyed over the years.
A Recipe for Success
The first recipes centered around the use of ice and natural salts (not the processed modern versions) to keep food fresh. As most cultures grew near water sources, seafood and fish were central to early diets. Added to this were abundant naturally occurring foods such as eggs, mushrooms and insects. Lightly-salted grasshopper, anyone? No? Perhaps a mushroom of unknown origin? Alright then, moving on.
Around 12,000 years ago our ancestors began cultivating crops which introduced grains and a wider range of fruits and vegetables to the human palate. The addition of grains led to flour, bread and soups making soup and a sandwich one of the first combination menu items in history.
Cooking was in full swing by Roman times with the addition of the word “cuisine” that included fried chicken, lobster, truffles and everyone’s favorite, cheesecake. The human love for food knows no bounds and our chef’s have spent millennium creating, perfecting and tinkering with recipes, combinations and methods.
A favorite staple in many peoples diet, coffee, came on the scene around 800 A.D. when an Ethiopian goatherd noticed how frisky his goats became after eating the berries containing coffee beans and tried some himself. By 1000 A.D. the Arabians began roasting the beans and outlawed the export or sale of fertile beans outside their lands, keeping an effective monopoly on the caffeine craving world. Around 1600 A.D. an Indian smuggler named Baba Budan strapped a selection of fertile beans to his belly and carried them home. The seeds bore fruit making this ancient act of industrial sabotage the first step on the road that is responsible for the Starbucks craving public of the modern world. Many thanks to Baba Budan for his service.
Moving forward to modern times, Twecipes(dot)com began back in April of 2009, offering followers simple recipes for simple ingredients. Send a short ingredient list and they will Direct Message you back a recipe suggestion. Social media with tasty results.
Cooking up a story
Considering that cooking is at the root of human society and life it lends itself well to deepening any story. With such a broad selection of foods available, finding the one that works best in a scene becomes an important question.
Will our hero treat their love interest to a romantic dinner on the beach with hot dogs or fresh lobster dripping in rich butter? That all depends on the story, the personality of the characters and what we want to convey to our readers. Hot dogs can be romantic if shared by social elites that have acquired a down to Earth perspective as a part of their character arc. Fresh Lobster, on the other hand, can be a sign of romantic victory for a young couple that have struggled their way to a new success in life. What is your story trying to show?
There are stories associated with foods as well, such as the story of Baba Budan. Imagine risking state execution to smuggle out a handful of coffee beans. Or the secret recipe of an advanced beer. Perhaps a farming method that will increase the wheat yield in a starving country. All of these were industrial spy missions at one time in human history.
Conquerors throughout history understood that a lack of food by either side was a sure way to defeat or victory. If the enemy starves he is easy to defeat and control. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying “An army moves on its stomach”. No food. No conquering invasion. No heroic defense.
One other consideration, especially for those writing historical fiction or fantasy, is what foods are or were available in your time era? If your story is placed in 13th century Italian settings then you cannot have your hero sit down to a heaping plate of risotto (a 15th century invention) but you can have them enjoying ravioli (which would be a new taste sensation).
Make your food choices fitting and realistic and your readers will find themselves drooling at the tasty sensations of your well-chosen prose.
Join me next Wednesday for another Designing from Bones when we will visit an ancient Mediterranean culture and see what its history has in store for us.
I am also guest posting over on Nicole Basaraba’s site today with a review of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Stop on over and have a look.
If you’re interested in more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries found in “Categories” on my side bar.